There are about 1 million Russian-speaking Jews in North America. At a special conference in New York they heard about Judaism and new Zionism that gives birth to apps instead of drying swamps.
Elior Levy NEW YORK – Does the fact that Google founder Sergey Brin, WhatsApp developer Jan Koum, and PayPal founder Max Levchin, are all Jews, attest to the general success of Jews worldwide? Probably not. However, these three have a lot in common besides their Jewish roots: They all left the former Soviet Union to move to North America, where they found success and became what they are today – young, smart, talented and rich. Very rich. A Limmud FSU conference, which took place two weeks ago in the US, tried to examine how Russian-speaking American-Jews turned into the most successful of high-tech entrepreneurs. The Limmud FSU organization was created to serve as an educational framework for young Russian speaking Jews worldwide.
The project is independent and seeks to renew the tradition of Jewish learning (or Limmud), and through that tradition strengthen the Jewish identity of the participants, as well as their connection to Israel. According to various estimates, there are close to one million Russian speaking Jews currently residing in the US and Canada. Half of them live in New York and New Jersey. The three famous entrepreneurs mentioned above are examples of the important part Russian-speaking Jews play in groundbreaking technological innovation.
The Limmud FSU conference focused on Jewish innovation and entrepreneurship, examined the dynamics behind the new wave of high-tech entrepreneurship by Russian-speaking Jews, and looked into their contribution to the world of technology and the world of Judaism, as well as the world in general. Eight-hundred young Russian-speaking Jews from the US and Canada gathered at the conference for a packed weekend headlined by 90 lecturers from all areas of life, including Israeli politicians, academics, writers, as well as businessmen from both Israel and the US. However, the conference wasn’t exclusively lectures, and also included a wide range of presentations, from innovation and solutions to technological problems to presentations on the essence of women and Judaism.
While the Jewish issue was present among conference participants, it was approached from a different angle and was not obligatory. “By having a unique educational experience that combines history and Jewish culture, the organization is leading a revolution in which Russian-speaking Jews around the world come in contact with pluralistic Judaism, and from there it has a significant impact on the strengthening of Jewish identity and contributes to deepening their activity and involvement in the Jewish community here,” said businessman Matthew Bronfman, the chairman of Limmud FSU, who also gave a lecture to young people. Alina Bitel, head of Limmud FSU in the US, explained that the organization’s leaders work under the assumption that most of the Russian-speaking Jews come from secular communities that deal more with culture, history, and intellectualism than traditional Judaism. Therefore, she said, along with professional lectures, participants were also asked to give presentations on literature and politics.
“The idea isn’t to hammer Judaism into the heads of the people who come here,” said the organization’s founder Chaim Chesler. “We allow people to participate without reservation or limitation.” “There is an organizing committee of participants who are the ones who decide which interesting lectures they want to hear,” he added. The subject of the last conference, said Chesler, was particularly important for the participants. “Innovation is the pride of young Jews in North America,” he said. “They really feel that they will be the ones to bring innovation to America.” Chesler, a man with the temperament of a 20-year-old, ran from one lecture to another and promised that at one of the next conferences he would bring Sergey Brin himself to give a lecture to the young people.
Naturally, one of the more popular lectures at the Limmud conference was by Eli Itin, head of innovation at Amdocs Israel, and the hall allocated for his lecture was too small to fit the crowd. Itin began his lecture on turning problems into opportunities in high-tech ventures with a number of questions. He was quick to find out this was no group of novices, but highly driven and educated youths either in the midst of their studies, or fresh graduates of technological degrees. “Many of the people here remind me of myself and the process I went through,” he said. “They are very creative and it is important for me to encourage their connection to Israel, especially if they are focused on business and technology. It is the new Zionism. Instead of de-swamping we develop applications.” Chesler continued to run about to and fro, urging participants to enter yet another lecture. He describes the conference as a mix between J Date and the startup world. “We don’t hide the fact it is important to us that the youths who participate in the conference interact with people their own age and meet Jewish partners. Haven’t you met the couple who met here for the first time two years ago? Last year they got married, and this year they are here with their baby!”
The conference ended on a successful note, and left the impression next year’s conference would be even bigger. The youths sang, and learned, and their connection to Israel was strengthened – but was it enough for them to leave the Big Apple for Tel Aviv? That is a whole different story.
Elior Levy was a guest of the Limmud FSU.